Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cuba: Cuban Government Fears Football Defections

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Cuban Government Fears Football Defections

Playing in matches in United States offers players chance to escape and seek fame abroad.

By Nico Cervantes - Latin America

Although Cuba’s national football squad is playing in a major regional tournament, fans at home have not been able to watch the matches live. State-run television has been screening the matches late, apparently to save face in the event that players take the opportunity to defect in the United States, the host country.

For instance, viewers had to wait until July 12 to watch Cuba’s debut match against Costa Rica, three days after it was played.

The Cuban team is playing in the Gold Cup of CONCAFAF, a confederation of the United States, Canada, Central American and Caribbean countries.

Although delayed screenings have been a feature of past Gold Cup championships, fans had their hopes raised by recent live broadcasts of Cuban team matches in the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil, and the FIFA Under-20s World Cup held in Turkey.

When it came to the US-hosted Gold Cup, however, the state channel TVC decided instead to show the national boxing championships and also the Women’s Euro UEFA matches, in which there is no Cuban involvement.

Mario Lara, administrator of the Cuban Football Blog, said live broadcasts could leave the authorities embarrassed if any of the players took off.

“They have always tried to conceal this kind of thing,” he said. “There have always been rumours, but by the time it can finally be corroborated, the subject has gone cold and it gets forgotten.”

In four out of the six previous Gold Cup championships that the national team has reached, seven players have applied for US residence. In all, 26 Cuban footballers have become what the government calls “deserters” over the last 14 years.

The US government grants residence to any Cuban who makes it onto American soil. This is part of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, under which Cuban nationals are sent home if they are intercepted at sea, but are safe once they make it to land.

Entering the US to play matches is thus an enticing opportunity for a professional footballer whose horizons are limited at home.

Maykel Galindo and Osvaldo Alonso, who defected in 2005 and 2007 respectively, both went on to win lucrative contracts with Major League Soccer clubs in the US.

Official concerns about possible defections were also reflected in the selection of less experienced players for the Gold Cup squad, and the failure to take part in practice matches for what is the most important regional championship.

Rising stars Marcel Hernández and Domingo Francisco were dropped from the squad, ostensibly because of poor performance. The international sports channel ESPN suggested that the real reason was that they might defect.

One comment posted on the Cuban Football Blog notes that at the Gold Cup, “there’s less anticipation of the results and more about knowing which footballers have seized the opportunity to pursue their dreams on North American soil.”

Nico Cervantes is a Cuban journalist and photographer.

This article first appeared on IWPR's website.